03.03.2014 Havel – The Power of the Powerless

Havel, V. et al., 1985. J. Keane, ed. The Power of the Powerless: Citizens against the state in central-eastern Europe. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Text chosen by Jon Price

Václav Havel is famous today as the Czechoslovakian playwright who became the country’s leader during the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the first President of the new Czech Republic in 1993.  Also a poet and essayist, some of his most influential works include prose writings of the 1960s and 1970s on political and humanitarian issues which led to the suppression of his stage work and his frequent imprisonment under the Communist regime.  Among these works, The Power Of The Powerless (1978) is perhaps the most celebrated.  Originally intended as the starting point for a Polish-Czech literary collaboration (with authors from both countries invited to respond to Havel’s essay), its conception of the “post-totalitarian” state and critique of living “within the lie” of such a system  became an inspiration for fledgling Eastern Europe opposition groups who had previously struggled to identify theoretical groundings for their activity.

Perhaps inevitably, Havel was arrested in May 1979 along with various other VONS (Committee to Defend the Unjustly Prosecuted) members and contributors to the projected publication.  This proved to be the beginning of his longest internment, lasting nearly four years.  Such persecution, and the often more severe sufferings of many of his compatriots and kindred spirits under communist rule throughout the Eastern states over more than two generations, establishes a qualitative difference between their history and any experience of political frustration in the west today.  However, reading The Power Of The Powerless now, in (what should be) the politically remote place, time and context of 21st century Britain, conjures a strange resonance.  There is something eerily familiar about Havel’s description and diagnosis of the atmosphere, outlook and conditions of political and intellectual life.

Of course, as a playwright turned President, he has an additional relevance for me as a unique and iconic “artist as leader”.

The original text runs to about 90 pages so we’re going to be looking at the attached excerpts (just over a quarter of the whole), which are my selection. I hope these provide a reasonably coherent threading of some key ideas. The full text is available at http://www.vaclavhavel.cz/.

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